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Robert Mondavi would have been 98

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I went up to Robert Mondavi Winery on Friday for Margrit Mondavi’s lunch party to celebrate what would have been Robert’s 98th birthday. A sweet occasion. Gorgeous Spring day, at last: gentle northwest breeze, blue sky, warm but not hot. The winery was quite crowded with happy, talkative tourists. As I was early, I hung out on the great lawn for a while, observing, and my first thought was how impeccably Constellation has maintained the grounds. They haven’t let a thing slide. The Bufano greeting you with open arms, the campanile and arch, the flowerbeds, all perfect. There was a live band on the edge of Tokalon Vineyard–Tokalon, splendid in Platonic vineyard glory, stretching to a Mayacamas range lit with the slightest hint of purple, like mountains in a Japanese painting.

After a cocktail hour, we repaired to the Vineyard Room for lunch: green salad from the garden with ‘09 To Kalon Reserve Fumé Blanc, short ribs of beef with ‘96 and ‘07 Mondavi Reserve Cabernet, a galette of apricots, blackberries and frangipane with vanilla ice cream, with 2010 Mocato. On my left, Carl Jaeger, Mondavi’s estate director, kept me amused, as did Megghen Driscol, on my right; we described the contents of our bucket lists.

I looked around at faces I could identify: besides Margrit, there were Peter Mondavi, Sr., Tim Mondavi, Koerner Rombauer, Clarke Swanson, the Trefethens, Mike Grgich, Agustin Huneeus, the Chappellets. This really was Napa royalty; you see them, and there is history, marching across Napa Valley under streaming banners. Grgich summons Chateau Montelena and the ‘73 Chardonnay that won the ‘76 Paris tasting. Peter Mondavi, Sr. recalls his parents buying the Sunny St. Helena winery and then Charles Krug itself–Charles Krug being Napa’s very roots. Agustin Huneeus reminds me of the great glory days of Franciscan.The Chappellets and Trefethen harken back to the heady days of the boutique winery arising in Napa Valley and my own introduction to these great wines.  And Mrs. Mondavi herself, unfailingly charming and polite, the embodiment of Napa grace and elegance, and yet with that warm, human touch.

At one point she stood and gave a charming little toast to Robert, reminding us of something he used to say: “A good Cabernet should have the softness of a baby’s bottom and the power of a Pavarotti.” In all the descriptions of Cabernet I’ve written over the years, I’ve never put it better than that. It made me think of “an iron fist in a velvet glove,” which made me think that, had Tchelistcheff been alive, he would have been at the luncheon.

The vines in Napa looked fine. There likely will be or already has been shatter due to all the rain and cold, but there’s plenty of time for the season to correct itself. I’ll be back in Napa this Friday, for a tasting of certain Oakville Cabernets and blends. The weather should be spectacular, after this worst of (non-existent) Springs.

  1. Fourteen or so years ago, I was invited to attend a luncheon at Mondavi Winery in promotion of a particular international wine competition. I attended, and assumed that I would be one of hundreds in attendance. As it turned out, I was one of about 25 in attendance and ended up seated between Robert Mondavi and his wife, Margrit.

    Over the wonderful lunch topics ranged from the wine competition to winemaking to wine sales. At one point, we started talking about wine sales online, wine bulletin boards, email marketing, etc. I had been doing some of that, more than a number of attendees. Mr. Mondavi started asking me question after question…..”How do you do…..” “What is the cost to do it?” “What is the response rate….” etc etc.

    I left awed by two things. First, that Mr. Mondavi would ask me questions was amazing to me. But, more than that, that Mr. Mondavi would be so inquisitive, always wanting to discover something new, and be so willing to say that he didn’t know something (though he knew more about selling wine than I will ever know) and learn from someone else. It wasn’t the kind of thing that you often see from people in his position — and explained so much to me about the success that he had.

    Adam Lee
    Siduri Wines

  2. This reminds me of some of the wonderful memories I’ve had in and around RM winery. Mr. and Margrit really set the example for entertaining with grace and charm.

  3. Adam, thanks for sharing that memory of Robert Mondavi.

  4. I had almost 19 fantastic years with the original Robert Mondavi. From my first to RMW in 1980 until I got to join the company on Feb. 9, 1986 to my last days I will always remember being on a first name basis ( he called me Bob and I called him Mr. Mondavi) and the 19 years of fine wine, food and the arts as practiced by Bob and Margarit and the first family of Napa Valley.

  5. What a heartwarming account of Mr. Mondavi’s birthday. It is great to hear that so many great names – and family members – came to RMW to continue his legacy. Thanks for sharing your experience with us.

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